One probably wonders, where does a round purple vegetable get a name like eggplant anyway? This name actually refers to the eggplants grown and cultivated in Europe, which were yellowish or white, resembling eggs. Oddly enough, eggplants were used more often for decoration than consumption. The name stuck, however, and travelled along to the West, where the food continues to be grown and eaten under the name eggplant. The classic image you get in your head when you think of eggplant, though, is most likely of a large, oblong-shaped vegetable (more accurately a fruit) with a dark purple hue.
Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, closely related to tomatoes, potatoes, and the tobacco plant. Due to its connection to the nightshade family, it was originally believed that eggplant was poisonous. While not nearly as deadly as that in reality, eating raw eggplant isn't exactly advisable. Eggplants have a natural bitterness that they accrue as they grow. To alleviate this, many chefs recommended that you salt the cut eggplant flesh and then rinse it before cooking it. This process, also known as degorging, draws out moisture and lowers the amount of oils and fats that the eggplant will absorb when cooking.
Originally native to India, the common purple eggplant has spread its seeds throughout the modern world and can be found in the cuisine of a multitude of different countries. In France, eggplant is known as aubergine, a name also used for the purple color of eggplant (even the flowers of the plant are purple), and is one of the main ingredients in the famous French dish ratatouille. In the Middle East, eggplant is mashed and blended with other ingredients like tahini to create baba ghanoush, a creamy dip for dipping pita bread in. Pickled and miso-glazed eggplants are very popular in Japan — it seems almost every country in the world has some traditional use for eggplant.
Eggplant is so versatile in the kitchen that it is commonly used, rather effectively, as an alternative to meats and proteins. As an example, consider eggplant parmigiana, a popular Italian dish; as a substitute for classic chicken parmigiana, the eggplant holds up as a hearty main ingredient, especially when it's breaded and fried in the same manner as chicken. With some tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese, they're almost indistinguishable at first glance.
With such varying recipes from around the world, you don't need to be an eggplant wizard to figure out how to cook one. Grilled, baked, boiled, fried, or sautéed — all are examples of perfect ways to prepare eggplant. With a softness perfect for melding with other vegetables in a stew and a heartiness to withstand the highest of heats, eggplant has all the characteristics of a multipurpose food and is the main focus of many a recipe. Grab them when the weather is warm, and when they're small and heavy, and eat them up. Skin, seeds, and all.